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Sunday, January 31, 2016

Ten Years Later... the 78th Academy Award Nominees

On this day in 2006

Hate to have to point it out, but the Oscars have actually always been "so white," even in the year that it honored a movie that's all about racism (but in a way that won't make white people feel uncomfortable, because it depicts everyone as racist) with the Best Picture Oscar. So, ten years later, let's look at the Oscar nominees for the 2005 film year, focusing mainly on the "big six" categories.

Best Picture
Crash (winner)
Brokeback Mountain
Good Night, and Good Luck.

Since winning in the big award ten years ago, Crash has gone on to be considered one of the worst Best Picture winners ever, and it's hard to argue with that. Crash is heavy handed and pandering, tackling its subject in the most superficial way possible, though it features several great performances nevertheless. Also nominated were Brokeback Mountain, the one actual masterpiece of the Best Picture lineup and a film that, at the time, several Academy members went on record as saying that they wouldn't even watch because of its subject matter; Capote, a finely rendered biographical film about Truman Capote writing his true crime book In Cold Blood; Good Night, and Good Luck., a politically charged film about Edward R. Murrow's battle with Joseph McCarthy and the power of the media as a voice of dissent; and Munich, Steven Spielberg's drama about Israeli retaliation for the massacre of its athletes at the Munich Olympics. To be honest, of the nominated films, Brokeback is the only one I would actually nominate for Best Picture, though Capote, Good Night and Good Luck., and Munich are all films that have their strengths and would at least make my long list for best of the year.

I Would Nominate: Brokeback Mountain, Cache, L'Enfant, A History of Violence, The Squid and the Whale

Also Worth Considering: The Constant Gardener, The Death of Mr. Lazarescu, Grizzly Man, The New World, Sympathy for Lady Vengeance, Tsotsi

Saturday, January 30, 2016

21st Century Essentials: 25th Hour (2002)

Director: Spike Lee
Starring: Edward Norton, Rosario Dawson, Barry Pepper, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Brian Cox
Country: USA

Spike Lee’s 25th Hour is one of those films that is at once a perfect snapshot of its time and the sort of film that is so vitally alive that its ability to move and speak to you is not in any way hampered by being removed from the context of its original release. We’ll never know exactly what this “day in the life” movie would have looked like if the events of September 11th had never happened; some of its strongest elements would no doubt have remained intact as it followed its protagonist during his last day of freedom, reconciling himself to what he’s losing and making peace with where he’s heading, but it may not have had the elegiac quality that it possesses by setting its story in the shadow of national tragedy. Lee can be a divisive filmmaker, but his is the perfect voice for this particular story and 25th Hour is one of his absolute best films.

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Review: Cartel Land (2015)

* * * 1/2

Director: Matthew Heineman

Cartel Land is one of the most terrifying movies I've ever seen. To be blunt, these people are fucking crazy and they all have guns. The only person who might be crazier is director Matthew Heineman, who tags along with vigilantes on both sides of the US/Mexico border as they battle against drug cartels, and is right there with them in some incredibly risky situations. But with great risk comes great reward and it's all up there on the screen in this documentary which, scary though it may be, is also utterly fascinating and completely riveting. Having now seen four of the five documentaries nominated for this year's Oscar, I think this is one of the best shortlists they've ever arrived at.

Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Review: Life (2015)

* * 1/2

Director: Anton Corbijn
Starring: Robert Pattinson, Dane DeHaan

Before his first film (and the only one he actually lived to see released) even came out, James Dean was already on his way to attaining status as an icon thanks to the still images put out to promote him and which captured the restless, hungry cool which was just as vibrantly apparent on film. Some of those photos were captured by Dennis Stock, who ended up immortalizing what would be Dean's final trip home to Indiana, the pictures appearing in Life magazine just before the premiere of East of Eden. Anton Corbijn's latest film is about that trip and what would be the brief friendship between Stock and Dean. Like many biopics, it ends up feeling as if it just skims the surface of its subject, but in its languid way it nicely captures the potentially volatile relationship between the person on one side of a camera and the person on the other as they negotiate the ways and means of representation.

Monday, January 25, 2016

Netflix Recommends... About Time (2013)

* * *

Director: Richard Curtis
Starring: Domhnall Gleeson, Rachel McAdams, Billy Nighy

I seem to be one of the few people who is utterly ambivalent about Richard Curtis' Love Actually, a film which has inspired love and hate in equal measure depending on who you're talking to, so when his time travel romantic comedy About Time came to theaters, I took a hard pass (though I might have given it a shot had it come out earlier in the year; as movie buffs know, there's just too much to see in November and December of each year to not be a little selective). When it popped up in my Netflix recommendations, surrounded by a lot of films that I've already seen, I finally decided to give it a chance, and while I was perhaps just in the perfect mood for its inconsequential fluffiness, I found it to be rather winning. Objectively, it is definitely lacking in some respects as a narrative; subjectively, I found it delightful.

Sunday, January 24, 2016

Review: Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015)

* * *

Director: J. J. Abrams
Starring: Daisy Ridley, John Boyega, Adam Driver, Harrison Ford, Oscar Isaac, Domhnall Gleeson

I'm a Star Wars fan, but not a Star Wars fanatic (which is probably evident in the fact that I waited a month to actually see The Force Awakens). I have an abiding affection for the original trilogy, which I was too young to see when they originally hit theaters but old enough to see when they were re-released in theaters in the 1990s, but I didn't care for the prequel films and, in fact, was so unimpressed by Attack of the Clones that I've never even bothered to see Revenge of the Sith, so when plans for The Force Awakens were first announced, I was more curious than anything. But The Force Awakens is most certainly a movie made for people who like the movie that started it all, to the point where it's replaying those original beats and barely bothering to pretend that it isn't. If it weren't so entertaining, it might be derivative, but fortunately it's pretty damn entertaining.

Saturday, January 23, 2016

Review: The Revenant (2015)

* * *

Director: Alejandro G. Inarritu
Starring: Leonardo DiCaprio, Tom Hardy

The Revenant is brilliant and frustrating. While watching it I was alternately rapt and bored, witnessing some moments that verged on genius and others which were sunk by their artificial profundity. That's the thing with filmmaker Alejandro Inarritu's work, though; he tends to make films that come just this close to greatness without quite leaving you with anything to hold on to afterwards. You watch his work and marvel at the technical prowess on display, but there's an emptiness at the core that prevents it from resonating. The first twenty to thirty minutes of The Revenant are amazing, and it is intermittently great from that point on, but by the time it was over, I was more than ready for it to be over and that was before it arrived at its final shot, which actually made me roll my eyes it was so trite. However, when you consider that I would gladly sit through all of the film's lesser moments just to see its great ones again, I suppose you can chalk that up to a victory on the film's part.

Saturday, January 16, 2016

21st Century Essentials: Control (2007)

Director: Anton Corbijn
Starring: Sam Riley, Samantha Morton
Country: United Kingdom/USA

Biopics rarely get it so right. For whatever reason, more than any other subgenre save, perhaps, the sports movie, biopics tend to get stuck in the rut of habit and cliché, with so many travelling over the same narrative peaks and valleys, as if there is no other route. Control is a biopic that gets it right – not necessarily because it’s telling a story that is 100% factually correct (it’s based on the memoir Touching from a Distance by Deborah Curtis, widow of Joy Division’s Ian Curtis, so it’s guided by the point-of-view of someone who has a vested interest in how things are perceived), but because it invests itself with a vision which feels unique and finds the exact right balance between the professional achievements and ambitions that made the subject famous, and the personal life that inspired and, in some ways, derailed him. The feature film debut of Anton Corbijn, Control is a beautiful, devastating, and poetic film.

Thursday, January 14, 2016

Oscar Nominees

The nominees are:

Best Picture

The Big Short
Bridge of Spies
Mad Max: Fury Road
The Martian
The Revenant

Wednesday, January 13, 2016

Oscar Predictions

The nominees will be announced tomorrow morning. My predictions:

Best Picture

The Big Short
Bridge of Spies
Mad Max: Fury Road
The Martian
The Revenant
Straight Outta Compton

Tuesday, January 12, 2016

Road to Oscar: The Winners and Nominees So Far

Since the last update the Florida Film Critics, the Austin Film Critics, the National Society of Film Critics, the Georgia Film Critics, and the Houston Film Critics have announced their picks, the Golden Globes have named their winners, and the BAFTA, Producers Guild, Directors Guild, and Writers Guild nominees have all been announced. Oscar nominations come out on Thursday, but here are the winners so far:

Monday, January 11, 2016

Review: Joy (2015)

* * *

Director: David O. Russell
Starring: Jennifer Lawrence

Although it markets itself as being a true story, David O. Russell's Joy is really more of a fable (and I'm not just saying that because the film apparently just straight up makes a bunch of stuff up, even more so it seems than most "based on a true story" films), and while it doesn't start with the words "Once upon a time," it really might as well. Grounded by an excellent performance by Jennifer Lawrence, who once again transcends Russell's habit of casting of her in roles that she's much too young for, Joy works more often than not, though it is a bit disjointed when looked at as a whole. A lot of people seem to be calling Joy a step back for Russell after the string of hits of The Fighter, Silver Linings Playbook, and American Hustle, but I have to say, as someone who liked Silver Linings but found The Fighter and American Hustle bizarrely overrated, I don't think Joy is actually any kind of step back in terms of quality. It's a fine movie, one that contains snatches of brilliance without ultimately being anything extraordinary.

Sunday, January 10, 2016

Golden Globe Winners

As they're announced:

Best Supporting Actress: Kate Winslet, Steve Jobs

Best Score: Ennio Morricone, The Hateful Eight

Best Supporting Actor: Matt Damon, The Martian

Best Animated Feature: Inside Out

Best Supporting Actor: Sylvester Stallone, Creed

Best Screenplay: Aaron Sorkin, Steve Jobs

Best Foreign Language Film: Son of Saul

Best Original Song: "Writing's On the Wall," Spectre

Best Director: Alejandro G. Inarritu, The Revenant

Best Actress, Musical or Comedy: Jennifer Lawrence, Joy

Best Motion Picture, Musical or Comedy: The Martian

Best Actress, Drama: Brie Larson, Room

Best Actor, Drama: Leonardo DiCaprio, The Revenant

Best Picture, Drama: The Revenant

Golden Globe Predictions

Best Film, Drama: Spotlight

Best Film, Musical or Comedy: The Big Short

Saturday, January 9, 2016

Top 10 Week... The Runners Up

Every year it's inevitable that some great films, performances, and scenes will end up cut from the final list of the year's best, and choosing the #10 entry in any list is always the hardest. I won't name everything from my long lists, but here are the choices that just missed out on taking those #10 spots, listed alphabetically.


"Ask me things. Please." Carol

Carol is a film that possesses a number of great scenes (including, of course, the one that made my Best Scenes list), but there's something particularly haunting about this one, in which Rooney Mara's Therese tells Cate Blanchett's Carol that she wants to ask her things. It's a scene which underscores how much of Carol's life is a performance to mask her real self, how desperate she feels to be seen for who she really is, and how difficult it would be for two people to find each other when they have no language to describe who they are and how they feel. It's a profoundly moving scene.

Friday, January 8, 2016

Top 10 Week... Films of 2015

#10: Brooklyn

There were more challenging movies to be found in 2015, but I'm not sure there were movies with more heart than Brooklyn. An old fashioned, heartwarming tearjerker in many ways, this story of a young woman who leaves her life in Ireland behind in order to seize opportunities available to her in America, only to return for what's supposed to be a brief visit and find herself torn between the life she has started to plan in America and the life which is suddenly offered to her in Ireland, was one of the year's big surprises for me at the movies. It's a simple story but it's so expertly crafted and executed, and carried so masterfully by the performance of star Saorise Ronan, that I couldn't deny it's power. Brooklyn may be nothing more than a nice movie about nice people, but that doesn't preclude it from being a great one.

Thursday, January 7, 2016

Top 10 Week... Performances by Women in 2015

#10: Rachel McAdams, Spotlight

Rachel McAdams makes no big speeches in Spotlight. She has no emotional outbursts, no romantic complications, no moment of self-doubt. She's just a woman who is dedicated to her job and whose ability to draw people out makes her an indispensable member of her team. It's a quiet performance, with the character's role largely to create a space for revelations from others, but that's why what McAdams does is so crucial. The quiet competence with which she instills the character makes her a natural for people to open up to, whether it's the victims of abuse that she's interviewing, a perpetrator who shocks her by openly admitting to what he did, or a fellow reporter who turns to her to talk through his anger at the situation, she makes for a natural confidante. McAdam's best moments in the film occur when she's simply watching someone, her performance built on small, subtle gestures. It's a performance so relaxed and unaffected that you might not even notice it - which is exactly what makes it so great.

Wednesday, January 6, 2016

Top 10 Week... Performances by Men in 2015

#10: Kyle Chandler, Carol

In a lesser film, Kyle Chandler's role as the husband of the eponymous character in Carol would be a thankless one, the heavy hovering indistinct on the edges of the story. Instead, in adapting it from page to screen, the film gives more breadth to the character and Chandler's performance allows him to be at least somewhat sympathetic. Played by Chandler, the character isn't the "bad guy," per se, but rather a man frustrated by the fact that life hasn't fully delivered on the promise of the American dream, complete with a loving wife by his side, and who just can't understand why it is that Carol doesn't want to be with him and that things just aren't going to be the way he was always told they were supposed to be. Stars Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara have received the most notice for their performances, but Chandler deserves some recognition, too, because what he brings to the film is invaluable.

Tuesday, January 5, 2016

Top 10 Week... Scenes of 2015

#10: Chinese restaurant scene, Kumiko, The Treasure Hunter

Kumiko, The Treasure Hunter is the story of a troubled Japanese woman who believes that the movie Fargo tells a true story and that if she follows the clues laid out in it, she can find the money that Steve Buscemi's character leaves buried in the middle of nowhere. It's a film that aims for the same dark humor as its inspiration and no scene in it hits that note stronger than the one in which the befuddled police officer who finds Kumiko wandering the highway decides that, since they can't effectively communicate with each other because he speaks no Japanese and her English is limited, he'll take her to a Chinese buffet, reasoning that someone there must be able to speak Japanese because... well, needless to say he didn't really think that through, but the exchange between him, Kumiko, and the woman who runs the buffet is worth every second.

Monday, January 4, 2016

Top 10 Week... Posters of 2015

#10: Crimson Peak

One thing that Guillermo del Toro's haunted house movie Crimson Peak got absolutely right was the look. It had some of the best production design and costuming of the year and, despite the horror unfolding on screen, it was always a beautiful movie to look at. The poster, with Mia Wasikowska's ghostly image floating in front of the mansion known as Crimson Peak in a striking black, blue, and red color scheme is pitch perfect.

Sunday, January 3, 2016

Review: The Hateful Eight (2015)

* * *

Director: Quentin Tarantino
Starring: Samuel L. Jackson, Kurt Russell, Walton Goggins, Jennifer Jason Leigh

The Hateful Eight begins perfectly, concludes reflectively, and contains an incredibly mixed bag of elements in between. All things told, it's one of Quentin Tarantino's most thematically ambitious features, but it's also one of his least successful films and winds up feeling a draft or two shy of the Tarantino we know and (many of us) love. I'm not sure when, exactly, this western turned locked-room mystery started to lose me a little, but I definitely never felt anything like the level of exhilaration and engagement I've felt when watching Tarantino's best movies, including his two most recent efforts, Inglorious Basterds and Django Unchained. The thing is, if this exact movie came from a different director, I'd probably have walked away from it thinking that that filmmaker was someone to watch going forward; it's only because it's from Tarantino that I found it kind of disappointing. Not bad, just disappointing.

Saturday, January 2, 2016

21st Century Essentials: Blue is the Warmest Color (2013)

Director: Abdellatif Kechiche
Starring: Adele Exarchopolous, Lea Seydoux
Country: France/Belgium/Spain

From the moment it first screened in Cannes in 2013, where it would go on to win the Palme d’Or, Blue is the Warmest Color was so embroiled in controversy that it was difficult to separate those issues – at first it was the length and explicitness of the sex scenes which dominated the conversation; later it was the very public feud that developed between director Abdellatif Kechiche and star Lea Seydoux – from the actual film itself. Seen now, when passions have cooled and the controversy has faded away, it’s easier to see through those extraneous things to what was always there if you looked closely enough: a masterwork that is so raw it can sometimes be difficult to watch. Blue is the Warmest Color is a work of intense, spellbinding emotional honesty, a film that is messy around the edges just as life itself gets messier the longer it goes on, and which is built around one of the greatest performances of the last decade. It’s the kind of film that comes along only once in a great while and which maintains its impact even after multiple viewings.